Decisions, decisions. Baseball players and managers may make them more deliberately than other sportsmen--say, race car drivers--and certainly they can hide them better. But there is no disguising the fact that often games are won not by the bat or the glove, but the mind.
Decisions, decisions. Cut through Tuesday night’s sweat and grass stains and the New York Mets’ 5-1 victory over the Dodgers in Game 6 of the National League championship Series, and you find three unusual choices that changed everything.
One involved Kirk Gibson’s leg, another involved Tim Leary’s split fingers and the third involved the Met lineup. Put the three together and it was a game decided by boldness--the kind worthy of both criticism and applause.
In order of importance:
--Gibson’s first-inning decision to bunt, with runners on first and second and none out and the Dodgers trailing, 1-0.
The author of key home runs in each of the past two games popped his teeny-weeny bunt up, pitcher David Cone caught it, and the Dodger rally was essentially finished.
You think you were stunned? Listen to the Mets.
“Yeah, I was surprised to see it in that situation,” Met catcher Gary Carter said. “You would figure, down one run, he would be swinging the bat. If it was even, I could see him bunting, but not otherwise.
“Maybe with his bad leg, he was afraid he would hit a ground ball. I don’t think he wanted to have to bolt out of the box.”
Carter was asked whether the bunt made him happy.
“Oh my gosh, yes,” he said. “It was a plus for all of us.”
Other Mets were simply confused.
Said third baseman Gregg Jefferies: “I can’t understand why he did it.”
Said shortstop Kevin Elster: “I was very surprised. But I was more surprised that we didn’t get a triple play out of it. You know, if Cone had let it drop, we would have gotten three, because Gibson didn’t even move out of the box.”
At least one Dodger teammate wasn’t that surprised, pointing to history and Gibson’s pulled left hamstring.
“This season he has done both, hit away and bunt the runners over for me, so it could have gone either way,” said Mike Marshall, who bats behind Gibson in the cleanup spot. “I wonder if this time, in the back of his mind, he wasn’t worried about the leg and hitting into a double play.”
--Leary’s decision not to pitch around the Mets’ No. 8 hitter, Elster, with 2 out and runners on first and third in the third inning. Leary hung a split-finger fastball in the strike zone, Elster popped it into left field for a double, and Darryl Strawberry scored from third base with what proved to be the winning run.
It was as if nobody noticed that standing on deck was Met pitcher Cone, a .126 lifetime hitter. Or that Elster, who hit only .214 this year and was 0 for 2 thus far in the playoffs, was 3 for 5 off Leary this year, with 2 homers and 4 RBIs.
“What if he had popped out, would you have been asking the same question?” snapped Dodger catcher Mike Scioscia, understandably peeved at a second guess. “We just went after him the best way we knew how, and he got a hit.”
Elster defended Leary’s action, saying it seemed that Leary was sort of pitching around him.
“I don’t think he wanted to get it in the strike zone, if that’s what you mean,” Elster said. “It wasn’t like he was throwing me fastballs up there or anything. He was coming at me with his best stuff, his split-finger. He just got one up.”
Added Strawberry: “I don’t think he was trying to give him anything to hit. I think Elster just hit a good pitch.”
A similar situation arose in the seventh inning, with Ricky Horton pitching and 1 out. Only this time Elster was walked, loading the bases. What does Cone do? Bounces directly back to Horton, into a double play.
--Met Manager Davey Johnson’s pregame decision to move Wally Backman up from the No. 8 spot in the batting order, back to the No. 2 spot where he spent most of the season, and where he hit during the Mets’ 1986 championship season. In doing so, he moved Jefferies, a good-hitting rookie, down from No. 2 to No. 6, directly behind Kevin McReynolds, to protect McReynolds from being pitched around.
What happened? The leadoff hitting, Len Dykstra, went 2 for 4, Backman went 2 for 4, and McReynolds went 4 for 4.
“What’s the big deal? Backman had hit there most of the season,” Johnson said. “He does a lot of things behind Dykstra, and then we get Jefferies into the No. 6 spot where he can protect McReynolds a little better. We just decided to go back to it.”
Backman, who learned of the switch when he arrived at the ballpark, was even happier when Johnson told him that if Dykstra led off the game by reaching base, they would immediately try one of their hit-and-runs. Sure enough, Dykstra reached on an error by first baseman Mickey Hatcher, and immediately was moved to third on a Backman classic hit-and-run.
“I feel great being back in that spot. That’s what I’m used to,” Backman said.
Said Dykstra: “It was good to have him behind me again. There is so much he can do, so many ways he can get on base or move the runner over.”
As far as Jefferies was concerned, well, after blowing two bunts in the Mets’ last two playoff losses, he wasn’t in much position to say anything.
“I’ve never batted sixth before, but I’ll take any chance I can get to drive in more runs,” he said, although he went 0 for 4 Tuesday. “If it helps McReynolds any, fine. I don’t know if it does.”